One brief and little noted news item stood out among the welter of wordage in the last two or three weeks. It was this: ‘Two students, one French, one German, were each gaoled for six months at Londonderry yesterday – that was on 18 August – for throwing petrol bombs at police.’ We shall do well to ponder that news item deeply; for, as Douglas Read used to say in the 1930’s, ‘This means you’.
For us in the United Kingdom, the quarter of a century since World War II has been a halcyon period of security and tranquillity – not without parallel, yet not, by historical standards, at all usual. Those who lived through the years of mounting fear and danger between the two Wars, have counted off the years as they passed by and thought how great was the contrast between the third decade after 1945 and the third decade after 1918. We should be foolish indeed if we assumed that this halcyon security and tranquillity has been entailed upon us as a permanent guaranteed possession. It is not endangered now, as it was thirty years ago, by the external massing of military force. It is endangered in my estimation by violence of a different but no less potentially destructive kind.
The news item which I quoted just now is a portent. What is a Frenchman or a German doing throwing petrol bombs at the police in the United Kingdom? What is a French student or a German student doing with petrol bombs in Londonderry? The thing which happened in Ulster in the last two or three weeks has little kinship with the Irish troubles of the 1920’s and before. It has great kinship with what has been happening in the universities and cities of the United States, with what happened in Paris last year, with what happened in Berlin the year before – and in London too we have seen a glimpse of its face for a moment now and again.
There has been a great technical innovation, which, like all the major inventions of mankind, looks so simple that the wonder afterwards is why it was not thought of long before. Like all inventions it is essentially a method of getting large results with disproportionately small effort. The technique is as follows. Into a normal situation inject a new element of purposeless violence and aggression: quite a little violence will do for a start, and quite a few individuals are sufficient to begin with. Everyone is startled and astonished. Suddenly news exists where there was none before – pictures, action, reports. As the violence was purposeless, everybody is bound to set to work at once on discovering its purpose. There is never any want of such discoveries lying ready to be made. Grievances are found to exist, which therefore by definition ought to have been removed before. In an instant, with the speed of an explosion, the roles are reversed: the blame for the violence is discovered to lie with authority; government, law, society itself, are put in the dock by the criminal; the simple fact of the violent aggression becomes proof that those attacked are the guilty. The respectable organs of opinion lose no time in opening up. After cursory disapproval of violence in the abstract, they concentrate their assault upon the authority which is under challenge – the vice-chancellors ought to have consulted the students long ago on how to run the universities, the taxpayers ought to have been paying larger sums for housing and whatnot else, the cities ought to have been rebuilt before now. This sort of stuff is irresistibly tempting to the liberals and reformers, who are soon, in various degrees, heard condemning what is called ‘repression’, condoning violence, explaining it away, and sometimes all but calling for more of it.
What an extraordinary result: so much from so little – almost from nothing! A simple technique, simplicity itself; yet it has all but destroyed governments and states in Asia, in Europe and in America. It is at work at this moment in a part of the United Kingdom. It accounts for the paradox that tension had not for long seemed so low nor the sky so clear as a few months ago; it explains how a ratepayer franchise in local government which had always existed suddenly became an intolerable affront to the sacred principle of ‘one man, one vote’; it accounts for the dizzy escalation of events; above all, it provides the explanation for what the French student and the German student were doing with their little petrol bombs. The pattern is recognisable enough, and it belongs to an international, a world-wide context.
However, we are not concerned with all this as detached observers contemplating a fascinating development in political mechanics. Wherever this thing happens, the state has failed, or ceased, to perform its most basic and elementary function, which is the protection of the physical safety of its members. Politics has become engrossed with the functions of government as interfering with individuals and rearranging society, with its functions in organising the life and activities of the citizens, deciding how they shall be housed and educated, cared for in sickness and maintained in age – so much so that its first duty of all, to protect them against violence, has almost been forgotten, has almost atrophied. Yet unless that duty is performed, all the rest is worth less than nothing. It is therefore our business to see, so far as humanly possible, how we are going to discharge this elementary duty in the face of the threat which the new technology of violence presents.
Simply that the pattern should be seen and recognised is in itself important. It is because the nature of the phenomenon is mistaken that so many people innocently and with the best intentions behave in precisely the way which promotes it and multiplies its effect.